Thomas Golianopoulos

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    Breaking Out: Big Sean

    A child turning down a college scholarship to pursue a career in rap sounds like most mothers' worst nightmare. Luckily for the Detroit rapper Big Sean, his mother isn't like most. "My mom went to Hollywood to act in movies but became an English teacher to support me and my brother," says Sean Anderson, 22, who bailed on Michigan State. "She gave up her dream. So when my dream came around, she was like, 'Oh baby, you got to do it. You can go to school later.'?" He's since received a different kind of education. In 2006 the fledgling rapper brazenly approached Kanye West at a Detroit radio station while the superstar was in town on a promotional trip and asked to freestyle for him. "Kanye was like, 'You got 16 bars: Go!'?" remembers Sean. "That 16 bars turned into ten minutes.

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    Jay Electronica: Man or Myth?

    Hip-hop's greatest new MC gives his music away, tweets his baby's birth, and rhymes his name with Hanukkah. Is this guy for real? [Magazine excerpt] Jay Electronica lives in a third-floor walk-up around the corner from a street lined with bodegas, liquor stores, and hair salons in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, one of New York City's last neighborhoods untouched by gentrification. Barefoot, wearing a white polo T-shirt and gray sweatpants, the rapper rummages through what he calls his "bedroom-slash-studio-slash-cave," i.e. a small, nondescript office next to the living room. He lights a cigarette, takes one drag, then leaves it to burn down in the ashtray. Tiny scars cover his fingers. "+ god –" is tattooed cryptically behind his left ear.

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    Breaking Out: Nicki Minaj

    Nicki Minaj is the rare rapper without a chip on her shoulder. She's not even bitter about her time as an unsigned artist, when she struggled to get her gum-snapping flow noticed. "I was shopped around a lot early on," says the bubbly 25-year-old, born Onika Maraj. "The major labels weren't interested, and they shouldn't have been. They shouldn't have been excited to sign somebody that no one knew about." So she made a name for herself. In 2007, the Queens native shot a video for the punchlinedriven track "Click Clack," which landed on the underground rap DVD The Come Up Vol. 11: The Carter Edition. The clip caught the attention of Lil Wayne, who was featured on the same compilation, and the superstar promptly signed Minaj to his Young Money imprint.

  • Snoop Dogg, 'Malice N Wonderland' (EMI)

    These days, Snoop Dogg is as much a multiplatform brand as a rapper, so it's no surprise that his tenth solo album doesn't try to rework the formula. The Dogg-father smoothly dispenses boasts about his set, his weed intake, and his pimp hand. He also spells out his name-a lot. Two guest appearances, though, break the perfunctory mood: "Different Languages" features a brilliantly weird, whimsical hook by Jazmine Sullivan and "Pronto" answers the million-dollar question: What could possibly be worse than Soulja Boy rapping? Soulja Boy rapping in Auto-Tune. BUY:Amazon

  • Clipse, 'Til the Casket Drops' (Columbia)

    Being every rap blogger's favorite group isn't all that it's cracked up to be: Just ask Clipse, Virginia's bards of high-end coke rap. Their brilliant 2006 sophomore album, Hell Hath No Fury, was a brutal blend of the Thornton brothers' grim disposition and some of the Neptunes' weirdest electro beats. It thrilled the base, but still tanked. They've responded by dropping the scowl and lightening the hell up. Following an album devoid of radio jams, Casket's first two singles -- "All Eyes on Me" and "I'm Good" -- are a little startling. The beats, again by the Neptunes, are, respectively, an obvious Timbaland knockoff and a blip of synthy, adult-contemporary goo.

  • Chris Brown, 'Graffiti' (Jive/Zomba)

    On his first album since his infamous altercation with then-girlfriend Rihanna, Chris Brown sounds genuinely remorseful. He pleads for forgiveness, understanding, and some time off. (Too bad. Holiday album sales have never been more important.) But Brown doesn't let any of this obstruct a good party. He makes monster club songs. He's comfortable over the bouncy sirens of "Wait" or on "I Can Transform Ya," a typically bombastic Swizz Beats production featuring an energetic yet nonsensical rap from Lil Wayne and brisk, joyful vocals from Brown. The album's most striking moment is "Fallin' Down." Over a ominous guitar riff, the 20-year-old sings, "It's getting heavy / I think I'm getting ready to break down." It's the most honest moment of his short career. The kid sure needs a vacation. BUY: Amazon

  • Snoop Doggy Dogg, 'The Lost Sessions Vol. 1' (Death Row)

    As shameless cash-in compilations go, this latest set of unreleased Snoop outtakes (from his 1992–96 tenure at Suge Knight's label) is remarkably egregious. There are recycled verses, D-grade G-funk, and five tracks credited to "Producer Unknown." Sure, Dr. Dre worked on four songs, but only "Eat a Dick" boasts a pulse. Snoop himself is even slacking. Before his current family-friendly fizzle-fashizzle incarnation, the D-O double-G was lithe, smooth, and menacing. But here, he lacks both wit and charm; "Put It in Your Mouth" is just plain loathsome. BUY: Amazon

  • Saigon, 'Warning Shots 2' (Amalgam Digital)

    In 2005, Saigon was the most buzzed-about rapper since 50 Cent. But despite a supporting role on Entourage and a Just Blaze co-sign, his proper debut album, The Greatest Story Never Told, remains shelved. Saigon waves the white flag on Warning Shots 2. "For Some Pussy" is a brain-dead call-and-response, while "Cookies and Milk" retreads "Lollipop." It's all beneath this talented MC, who on his best days combines Nas' ghetto imagery with KRS-One's tough-love teachings. At least he knows it. On "Be on Time," Warning Shots 2's umpteenth strip-club reach, he says, "Nah, stop that. Fuck that. We don't want to hear that."

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    Breaking Out: Kid Cudi

    Though not a Christian rapper, Kid Cudi found Jesus in a Virgin Megastore. "I was looking at CDs, saw the gleam of a Jesus piece in the right side of my eye, looked up, and it was Kanye West," says the rapper, who decided this was divine intervention on behalf of his recording career. Mustering all his folksy Midwestern charm, he introduced himself and offered up his music. West politely balked, yet Cudi (born Scott Mescudi 25 years ago) persisted. "I said, 'We'll be working together one day soon.' " Last summer, three years after thatencounter, Cudi's prediction came true when West summoned him to Hawaii to work on 808s & Heartbreak. West had been impressed by Cudi's debut single, "Day 'N' Nite"-a dreamy tale about a lonely stoner seeking (what else?) enlightenment-which Cudi had released on the indie hip-hop label Fools Gold.

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    Cage: Out of the Shadows

    One morning in 2004, Chris Palko woke up in Middletown, New York's Elizabeth A. Horton Memorial Hospital, terrified that he would be committed again. Six hours earlier, depressed over his stalled career, his Volkswagen's busted engine, and a recent breakup, the rapper known as Cage had eaten half an ounce of psychedelic mushrooms (typically, two people would split an eighth of an ounce). Now, at 8 A.M., he was lying next to a guy in a partial body cast who was groaning in pain. Cage's left arm was bandaged to cover self-inflicted cigarette burns and slash marks. But he was more concerned with doctors discovering that as a teenager he'd spent 18 months in a psychiatric ward at Westchester's Stony Lodge Hospital. After this latest episode, doctors were likely to recommend that he again be institutionalized. So he got dressed and fled.

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